In Towson, citizens offer critique of BGE's response to Hurricane Irene

Dozens of Baltimore Gas & Electric customers on Tuesday recalled their not-too-fond memories of days of power outages and frustration in the wake of last month's Hurricane Irene.

At a hearing of the Maryland Public Service Commission, held at the County Office Building in Towson, some BGE customers described a "poor job" done by the utility company, while others feared rate increases they believe will come in the wake of the storm.

Still others — at least a few — had words of thanks.

The meeting, which will be used in the commission's investigation of BGE's response to the hurricane, provided customers with the opportunity to express their displeasure regarding the restoration of service after Irene knocked out power across much of the state.

And express their displeasure, many did.

One resident, Ralph Jaffe, called for the five-member Public Service Commission to resign, calling the process a "charade" and saying nothing meaningful has ever come from the commission.

Another, Marge DiNardo, called for BGE to do a better job trimming the trees in her Pot Spring neighborhood.

"We don't have Aunt Matilda's prized blueberry trees," she said. "We just have regular old trees."

And Leo Burroughs Jr., president of the Maryland Coalition for BGE Reregulation, called utility a "poorly-run company that did a poor job."

But throughout those messages, one sentiment was clear: Residents don't want to foot the bill for BGE's cleanup efforts.

"We just can't afford another rate hike," said Steve Levin, a county resident who said he was simply speaking on behalf of his family.

"I'm not sure what the correct response is," said Levin. "It's not a simple thing, and I'm not here to pretend that I know. I don't think I can foot the bill too much longer."

Burroughs interpreted BGE's public statements — that there wouldn't be a rate increase immediately after Irene — to mean that they would be coming down the line.

But commission Chairman Doug Nazarian said that would not happen.

"(BGE officials) have the right to come ask for the rates to be changed, but they have not done that since we last fixed their rates," Nazarian said.

Nazarian said he couldn't promise that the utility company wouldn't put the $81 million cleanup bill on its customers in the form of a rate height, but assured the attending customers that "nothing will happen any time soon."

After the hearing, BGE spokesman Robert Gould said that eventually, the utility will seek to recover the cost.

The earliest a customer may see any potential rate increase would be next summer, though Gould said the increase could incorporate reasons other than Hurricane Irene.

Additionally, any increase would need to be approved by the Public Service Commission after a review.

Until then, Gould said the immediate priority is to figure out how to best enhance the way they performed before, during and after Hurricane Irene.

Epic storm

At the peak of the outages, some 750,000 of BGE's 1.2 million customers were without power, with portions of Baltimore County going without power until Sept. 4 — more than a week after the storm hit.

Officials said BGE prioritizes restoration efforts around hospitals, emergency response centers, and public works facilities before focusing on the most widely affected areas.

Susan O'Brien, vice president of public affairs for the Health Facilities Association of Maryland, thanked BGE for its hard work, but said they were "dismayed" to learn that hospitals — but not nursing homes — are considered priorities for restoration when they provide similar services.

Others, such as Deborah Vance of Towson, said her neighborhood regularly loses power, and that, "If priority went to the people who lose the power the most, we would be near the top."

Gould said after the hearing that BGE will await the commission's recommendations regarding prioritization going forward, but called it a "tough issue to deal with."

"If you give priorities to schools, nursing homes, or senior centers, then invariably, the restoration that should be days or maybe a week ends up being several weeks, if we're not careful," he said.

Encouraging words

Not everyone at Tuesday's hearing had negative things to say about the utility.

Geoff Lambert, who takes in medically fragile animals at in his North County home, said his outage was taken care of in two hours the day of the hurricane.

"Whatever they're doing in my little corner of the world, I want to make sure they continue to do that," Lambert said. "And I appreciate that they do that."

Another, Sandy Clisham, was without power for a week, but said BGE office staff kept her informed and was very courteous.

Still, Gould said the company can do a better job communicating with customers, especially regarding the BGE vehicles they may see sitting idle during the restoration period.

He said some were monitoring downed wires for residents' safety, while idling trucks were waiting for tree crews or line crews to meet up with them in the area.

Several BGE employees spoke at the hearing in defense of their employers. John Horner, who was a storm director at the White Marsh regional command center, called BGE's Severe Impact Storm Restoration Plan a "living document which continues to evolve" based on experience, public feedback, and advanced technology.

He noted the lengths the company went to in order to restore power, and said they will continue to improve through these public sessions and internal critiques.

Mike Starner, a supervisor who was in charge of out-of-state crews, said some of his employees worked for 30 days straight, some of them 16 hour days.

BGE as a company will have the opportunity to formally answer to the commission for its storm response in the coming weeks, but customers who weren't able to attend Tuesday's meeting can voice their opinions on Oct. 11 at another session at the War Memorial Building on North Gay Street in Baltimore City. That meeting begins at 7 p.m.

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